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Bruce Lesley

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Working Kids... to Disability and Death

Posted: 05/04/2012 10:56 am

Keeping kids safe and free from harm should be common sense. However, last week the Department of Labor caved to opposition from big-money, corporate special interests and withdrew a proposal that would have prevented nearly 27,000 debilitating injuries and 80 deaths annually for child farm laborers. The opposition, led by Big Agribusiness, gained traction by distorting the truth about the rule's intended outcome.

Contrary to the industry's misinformation campaign, the proposed rule explicitly maintained the family farm exemption (Federal Register, Vol. 76, No. 171, Page 54836), so youth would have continued to do the full range of jobs on farms owned by their parents. But in settings where owners don't have the same natural interest in their safety and well-being, children would have been protected from dangerous work involving heavy machinery, toxic pesticides, and grain storage facilities.

These rules are urgently necessary and well overdue. The safety standards for child farm laborers have not been revised since Richard Nixon was in the White House. And this child labor loophole is unique to the agriculture industry. For 50 years, strong rules have protected kids from dangerous work in other industries. They cannot drive delivery vans, front-end loaders, or city buses; teenage lifeguards don't handle dangerous chemicals; and kids don't work in mines. But the rules that apply to every other industry do not apply to agriculture businesses.

Kids on farms today operate tractors and other heavy machinery before they can legally drive a car, though farm machines are often larger, have no seatbelts (let alone airbags), and bristle with high-powered instruments meant to work the ground. Children work on farms with dangerous pesticides that put their development at risk, and they work in and around grain storage facilities and manure pits that pose constant falling and suffocation hazards.

These dangers have grave consequences for children. According to a report in the Journal of Pediatrics, approximately 26,650 youth are injured on farms every year. Of these injuries, more than 3,700 require hospitalization. Every year, more than 80 kids die while working on farms, and the death rate for children in agriculture industries is seven times the rate across all industries. These are horrifying deaths -- about 25 percent involve heavy machinery such as tractors, 17 percent involve motor vehicles and 16 percent are suffocations. As agribusiness has rapidly evolved, the outdated child farm labor loophole has exposed children to ever-escalating dangers.

On the same day the administration dropped this rule, the White House announced that legendary farmworker advocate Dolores Huerta would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Two days later, the annual Workers' Memorial Day observance recognized those who suffered workplace fatalities. Two kids whose tragic deaths illustrate the problem are Jade Garza and Hannah Kendall, 14-year-olds who were electrocuted on July 25, 2011, near Tampico, Ill., on a farm owned by agribusiness giant Monsanto. A noble way to honor Dolores Huerta's legacy and remember Jade, Hannah, and the hundreds of other children who have died in the fields is to pass strong workers protections for child farm laborers.

The Children's Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act), introduced by Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), would close the corporate agricultural loophole to protect kids. This important legislation would protect kids from dangerous agribusiness jobs and close the farm child labor loophole, by bringing agribusiness industry child labor standards up to match standards applicable to every other industry.

Now that the regulatory effort has collapsed, passing the CARE Act is even more important and even more urgent. There's a role for each of us to play. Contact your representatives in Congress and urge them to support the CARE Act. We can keep family farms operating without killing America's children.

 

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